Monday, May 21, 2018

The Look Here! Project: An Interview with Laj Waghray

This is the seventh installment in our interview series with artists participating in the Look Here! Project. Laj Waghray is a filmmaker; she is the Director of Red Crane Films, and has numerous documentaries to her credit, including "Sleepovers," a 2012 documentary about four girls growing into young adults; she co-directed the third film in Janet Fitch’s series, "Guns, Grief and Grace in America" (2009); co-produced Ramon Rivera-Moret’s documentary, "On Calloway Street" (2008); and worked as an associate producer for Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini’s "Well-Founded Fear" (2000). Waghray was the 2014 recipient of Kartemquin Films Diverse Voices in Docs fellowship.

Why were you interested in participating in the Look Here! Project?

I am a filmmaker and we often work in isolation. So when the Look Here! Project came up it was exciting as it presented me with an opportunity to be a part of a University Library and to work with people!  This is a very good match for my personality.

AH: So when you’re talking about the research aspect of things – did you find in working on the Look Here! Project that working with the collections and materials helped to extend a current research project, or did it take you into something entirely new?

LW: I submitted two ideas when I first started the Look Here! Project. Both were something I had been exploring already. One idea was about the consequences of urbanization on bird habitats. I have been obsessed with that topic for a long time. And I’ve also been working on a short film which is more poetic, about ‘what hands do’. What do makers, or artists or whoever makes something with their hands - what draws them to their work, and why? So I submitted both ideas, thinking that my project with urbanization and birds will be the one that I would find the most material on and really, who was even thinking about hands? Then I come to the library and Max (Yela) is showing me these amazing artist books on similar issues and I realized there was much more material for the hands project. I was just blown away. Each book was part of this broad concept that I was exploring.
So that was an exciting discovery.

Then we talked about the Wisconsin Arts Project and the Milwaukee Handicrafts Project. What’s exciting is that someone, during the time of the Depression thought that jobs should come back and what did we go back to? Not technology but hands and handicrafts.

AH: That’s interesting, and that’s the Milwaukee Arts Project?

Yes, It  was a federally funded program, I am researching the libraries collection of the work of Elsa Ulbricht, who devised and oversaw the nationally recognized Milwaukee Handicraft Project, an  initiative created after the stock market crash that provided jobs for approximately 5,000 people (mostly poor, unskilled women), to manufacture toys, rugs, and printed fabrics.

The Idea was to provide employment for Americans affected by the economic crash through projects to improve the country’s infrastructure. Interestingly, it included a smaller project that focused on supporting the arts and involved people that were trained in working with their hands, which dovetailed nicely with my explorations. 

AH: I actually always think of the word "work" with your project, but I don’t think that you are necessarily looking at it as just an issue of "work," in terms of what people are doing with their hands.

LW: It’s not just work. For some people it is just work -It’s not a choice. For many others though, It’s the making, it’s the process, and it’s the touch that is very satisfying.

A lot of these discoveries have been pretty exciting. I didn’t ever think manual work and handicrafts was something that a federal government would get involved in. The process is beautiful. It breaks your thinking pattern, it breaks your assumptions and you end up going a whole new direction from what you wanted to prove.

AH: So the challenges for you come from both the collections in the Library and from live people.

LW: Yes, It happened in most unexpected ways. There were some good challenges too, It was hard to concentrate at the Special collection library, it was somewhat akin to the being a kid in a candy store  --- Everywhere you look there were stories coming at you. I had a hard time focusing but all my distractions and procrastination were tied to the fact that I might have succumbed to the temptation of turning pages of a book which is not related directly to my topic.

AH: In your previous work had you worked with historical materials very often?

LW: No, I’ve worked primarily with people. Sleepovers (2012) was about four girls and their journey. I followed them over the period of ten years. Then I worked on a film called On Calloway Street (2004), in New York, where I documented the lives of many immigrants over a period of two years. Later, I worked on a film on gun violence (Changing the Conversation: America’s Gun Violence Epidemic, 2009) and discovered that it’s not just homicide in urban populations which is the problem, but also suicides among white, suburban populations which goes under-reported. This is probably my first experience sitting in a library and digging, and I think I am hooked.

AH: You’ve talked about using the artist books that Max Yela has up in Special Collections, as well as the Milwaukee Arts Project collections, some of which we’ve digitized and put online. Are there any other collections that you’ve used that we haven’t talked about?

LW: Initially, for my urbanization and bird habitat project I found very interesting material like the Nehrling books, the Brehms Tierleben collection, and Eddee Daniel's artist books, which I hope to revisit later. Staying focused is a challenge when researching in a library like Special Collections.

AH: Do you save those up somehow for future reference?

LW: Yes, I do have this ‘idea book’ that I write things in. My challenge is that my work requires a team which requires funding. So if that comes along, I have lots of ideas in that book!
But going back to the challenge of focus, It’s very helpful that the librarians are interested in helping you, because sometimes research can be very overwhelming. I think the collaboration and getting to know the librarians; being able to go behind the scenes in the collections has been tremendous. The discussions with librarians lead you on the right path and they expand your ideas. They would have helped even if I was not part of a project, but this experience has been very rewarding.

AH: I think framing this as a project changes the relationship and makes it more of a partnership between the artists and the librarians than it might have been before. Which, like you said, the librarians would have always helped you. The Look Here! Project just makes it a more collaborative relationship.

LW: This time it seems like there’s this collaboration where the excitement is shared. It’s good. And the library has a stake in the work we’re creating.

AH: I think that’s exactly right. It’s not like you just walk away and show your work and we’re like "Oh that’s interesting. She used our stuff." We’re interested in what you’re doing with our stuff too. Because the other side of it for us is, how is that informing what we collect and what we digitize and how we make this material available so that it’s most useful for artists and others. Having you and other artists who work in a variety of media is contributing to our thinking on these things.

LW: It has made the experience quite rich, because I would have never thought of how Jill (Sebastian) is using the collections in her work, or Nirmal’s (Raja) use of the collections, or how Marc Tasman is repurposing things. When I’m listening to other artists it’s absolutely exciting.

AH: It’s been a really rich conversation. How did what you found in the collections influence your work?

LW: I had already decided when I applied how I was going to incorporate the materials. I did not expect that the collections would find me and change my work. I already knew what I was doing and thought I just needed X, Y, and Z to fulfill this task. Then I found all these artist books and the WPA projects - now I feel as if my project is advocating in some way for bringing the tactile sense back. I don’t know what will change in my journey. I’m on the journey where the work is talking to me.  It is saying “Wait, you’re not done yet. You need to add me to your journey and you need to talk about what’s being done historically, too, and how are you going to do that?” That’s the challenge and that’s where I’m at right now, trying to figure that out.

How has having so much content available digitally affected the work you are creating or has it had any impact?

LW: One of the online collections I used was the Wisconsin Arts Project. While there is a lot of material it’s very nicely organized so it’s a little less overwhelming. Still, because I’m going directly to where I want, there is a fear that I might be missing something else. In the Special Collections library what I wanted was put out on the table for me. I called Max and when I’d arrive it was already set out, so when you go to the library you are looking at your resources and your work – but there is also all the other work that other people are working on around you. Whether they’re there or not, the traces of their work are there. An unopened book there, a closed box with an interesting title. I found a film index from a few years back. There was some collection of encyclopedias from India that were old. I really had to pull myself back and say, “Max put this out for you on the table – there are 15 books out on the table; sit there and look at them.” 

AH: But was it exciting to have that other work sort of radiating around you?

LW: Yes, it’s like you’re surrounded by the evidence of other people’s ideas. If we are open to be influenced by other people's ideas we can arrive at a balance where their ideas can infiltrate into your curiosity and can unexpectedly elevate your project, making the process dynamic, ever-changing and exciting.

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